Politics & Policy

Mideast Chickens Coming Home to Roost

Chilled relations at the White House, October 1, 2014 (Win McNamee/Getty)
The Obama administration is incapable of imagining that it might be wrong.

Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg made headlines this week when he quoted an unnamed “senior Obama administration official” calling Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “chickensh*t.” In case that insight was not sufficient, one cannot help but conclude from the article that the administration officials with whom Goldberg is in touch do not seem to be deep thinkers. Consider the following:

[Another senior official] added that [Netanyahu’s] also a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. The official said the Obama administration no longer believes that Netanyahu would launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to keep the regime in Tehran from building an atomic arsenal. “It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”

So Netanyahu refused to take military action a few years back in deference to the Obama administration’s wishes, and now he is a “coward” for doing so. Meanwhile, “the good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars,” per the first official. Chickensh*t if you do, it seems, and chickensh*t if you don’t.

Commentators have remarked aplenty on Goldberg’s article and the tasteless quotes from his mysterious sources. What has gone largely unremarked is how basically un-self-aware those officials are (and, for that matter, is Goldberg, whose article largely shills for them). Even in an administration that has distinguished itself for incoherence, the lack of even basic logic betrayed in these comments is astonishing. There is much to be learned from Goldberg’s article about the present administration’s attitude toward the Jewish state, toward the Middle East peace process, and more. But there is a more basic point, which is that this is not just an administration beholden to left-wing groupthink, making policy in what is effectively an ideological isolation chamber; it is an administration that has lost — or perhaps never had — the capacity for self-reflection.

Take another example: For what Goldberg describes as a diplomatic relationship “mov[ing] toward a full-blown crisis,” he says Obama administration officials blame Netanyahu, who has been, in their words, “recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and ‘Aspergery.’” Netanyahu’s decision to pursue Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Netanyahu’s intractability regarding Iran, Netanyahu’s contempt for the Obama administration’s understanding of political realities in the Middle East, and Netanyahu’s obsessive concern for political self-preservation — these are responsible for the U.S.-Israel crisis.

What is striking is that the reality is not just generally the opposite, but almost precisely the opposite. In each of the matters for which they fault Netanyahu, it is the Obama administration, not Netanyahu, that has been unreasonable. Only months into his presidency, Obama demanded that Israel cease building settlements, foreshadowing his absurd determination to withdraw Israel to its pre-1967 borders. Despite three decades of saber-rattling from Iran’s mullahs and obfuscation about its nuclear program from government authorities, the Obama administration has put limitless faith in Iran’s noble intentions. And, of course, it is laughable for this White House to scorn someone else for prizing political self-interest.

Yet no one seems to have the detachment to consider that possibility. No one in the Obama administration seems to think with any rigor about the Obama administration — about its self-consistency, its ability to adapt, its fidelity to basic, incontrovertible principles of logic.

Its dealings in the Middle East are only a paradigmatic example. The Middle East is exhaustively studied, written about, discussed; there is no lack of experts. But despite the “Arab Spring” and other developments, the essentials of the Middle East have changed little in recent years, particularly between Israel and Palestine. Palestinians rejected a two-state solution in 1948, before Israel was founded; they reject one now. Yet the Obama administration presses Israel for concessions. What the Goldberg article suggests is that this is not realpolitik — the administration playing an even-handed, cosmopolitan part for the cameras and the “international community,” yet bolstering Israel quietly behind the scenes. Rather, the Obama administration is made up of true believers who really think Israel has a moral imperative to withdraw at least to pre-1967 borders, and that Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas is a “real partner for peace.” Only an administration with a near-religious conviction in its own infallibility could experience so many failures — failures routinely predicted by its ideological opponents — and persist in blaming its sole Middle Eastern ally. Only zealotry of an especially insular sort could explain the ability to support, in one breath and without the slightest blush, two contradictory statements.

It is not simply that Obama created the crisis in U.S.-Israel relations. It is that neither he nor his representatives are capable of taking stock and realizing it. That is a much deeper problem than diplomatic infelicities.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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